Classic & Remake: Side by Side
How many differences have you caught between the 1989 Disney animated The Little Mermaid and the modern “live-action” remake? Like with many of these revamped Disney classics, Rob Marshall’s 2023 The Little Mermaid has been met with resistance from audiences who complain of an uneasy “uncanny valley” feeling from watching too-realistic CGI sea creatures singing and dancing, and dark cinematography that’s hard to see or, at times, downright horrific. However, The Little Mermaid has also sparked positive buzz due to its casting of charismatic actors like Melissa McCarthy as Ursula, Daveed Diggs as Sebastian, Jacob Tremblay as Flounder, and Awkwafina as Scuttle – not to mention the culturally significant choice to cast black actress Halle Bailey as Ariel. So, looking closer at the details, what’s different between these two stories of Ariel?
A New Kind Of Realism
The most obvious difference between the two Little Mermaids, released over three decades apart, is the technology used to create them.
For the original 1989 film, which kicked off the “Disney Renaissance” era, Disney used their common practice of filming live actors for motion reference so the animators could make their characters feel as real and human as possible, while still being fantastical and larger than life. But with the newest film using live actors, and elements of CGI technology, The Little Mermaid automatically feels more “alive,” while the challenge becomes maintaining the original’s fun, lightness, and wonder. When it comes to the cinematography, the remake’s visual darkness also adds to a heightened realism compared to the cartoon – which can make the new film feel more epic and dramatic and even at times intense or jarring. This scene where the shark attacks feels almost taken out of a horror film, compared to the fear factor of the original which is hardly going to frighten anyone except the youngest kids. Likewise the peril of Ursula’s attacks. And then there are the drop and the difference.CGI creatures that swim alongside Ariel…
The Uncanny Animal Problem
Some audiences have been less than pleased with the “hyper-realistic” and downright eerie revamped looks of their favorite cartoon characters - especially Sebastian’s realistic-looking crab, and Flounder’s life-like fish makeover.
Another surprise was the redesign of Scuttle, the goofy and confident seagull who fancies himself an expert on all things human. Today’s Scuttle has been pointedly redesigned to be a Northern Gannet, birds who do often incorporate bizarre objects into their nests – so that’s fitting for a character who helps Ariel identify “thingamabobs’’ and “whozits and whatzits galore,” though it leads one to wonder: is it important to be factually accurate about bird behaviors in this particular story?
North Ganets can dive 70 ft underwater, allowing the now female character to be able to participate in scenes below the sea with Ariel. Whereas in the original this scene is filled with over-the-top expressions, this version is more about Awkwafina’s vocal delivery, which feels more modern and off-the-cuff. The popular actors of the remake bring a lot of personality to these characters in their voice performances – yet watching a CGI bird and crab vigorously debating somehow just isn’t as funny, cute, or believable as those zany original cartoons.
While the animated, richly colored version of this scene is filled with high physical comedy between the two characters, in the live-action scene, Sebastian can no longer be wide-eyed or slack-jawed with the limits of his realistic animation, so the physical comedy has to present in smaller ways, like Scuttle crash-landing on Sebastian while he protests or Sebastian pulling Scuttles tail. There’s also just not the same depth of interaction possible between the human actors and CGI animals as actors must perform with a creature that isn’t really there— compared to the original where everyone exists in the same world. In Part of Your World, we see Halle Bailey’s Ariel swimming, flipping, and twirling while she sings much like in the original, where we see Ariel in her grotto lit by an opening in the rock that creates a skylight to the surface. But unlike in the animated movie where she holds Flounder’s fin, dances, and plays along with him; in the remake, her animal sidekick’s range of motion is much smaller as he floats beside her.
So in many moments, The Little Mermaid has created that sense of hyperrealism that Disney remakes are often criticized for because audiences – especially those who grew up with the cartoon – feel it dulls the magic of the original story.
Is the Composition too Dark?
In addition to the often dark lighting, the color palette is more muted and realistic as well. Even though we’re looking at similar physical locations, they appear a far visual cry from the high contrast tones, golden sand, and sparkling teal ocean depicted in the animated film. The darkness and the low contrast color palette have been points of contention for many audience members who expressed dissatisfaction with the dark, dreary, or murky trailers.
Looking at the scene where Ariel rescues a drowning Prince Eric during a shipwreck, the remake creates much of the same pictures as the original, however, the remake is darker and bluer - closer to the palette of an actual ship in a storm in the middle of the night.
Viewers have debated a lot about whether this criticism of the low lighting is fair, and some scenes like “Under the Sea” are undeniably bursting with color. Still, by comparing this to the original, we can see numerous visual adjustments to incorporate the new film’s real-world approach. Sebastian glides towards Ariel in a wide shot saying, revealing a seafloor filled with authentic but colorful plants and formations. Comparing this with the same line of the animated film, Sebastian has more close-ups, with close-ups of his exaggerated facial expressions contrasted with a darker blue version of Under the Sea.
Certain familiar elements make their way into the remake, such as jewel-toned fish surrounding Ariel as Sebastian serenades her, compared with the larger yellow fish who swirl around a twirling Ariel. But the 2023 film isn’t giving audiences imaginative and over-the-top frames like a fluke playing a saxophone or a crab doing the charleston. It’s still giving audiences a flashy performance - with some shots even looking remarkably like the original. So there’s a sense of using different means to achieve the same ends: Maybe flamingos aren’t doing the shoop shoop, but Ariel’s animal friends are still setting a beautiful scene for her and Prince Eric in “Kiss the Girl” as fireflies dance, and fish create a fountain around them.
Updating The Music and Story
Little Mermaid director Rob Marshall said the team made some changes to the original’s story and lyrics because “the culture and sensitivities have changed over the last 34 years, and it’s vital that we are respectful to those changes.” So, for one thing, the lyrics to Kiss the Girl have been changed to play down any suggestion that Eric should force himself on Ariel. These words that some interpret as suggesting there’s never a need to ask consent, have been changed so that there’s less suggestion of Prince Eric in some way forcing himself on her. Some lyrics from Ursula’s Poor Unfortunate Souls, like have also been scrapped. Meanwhile, Lin-Manuel Miranda worked with the original film’s composer Alan Mencken to add three new songs, and there’s an extra reprise of Part of Your World.
Maybe the biggest story change is Ariel’s whole motivation for becoming human. Compare the lead-in to Under the Sea in the original with the lead-in from the remake. As star Halle Bailey put it, “...we’ve definitely changed that perspective of just her wanting to leave the ocean for a boy…It’s about herself, her purpose, her freedom, her life, and what she wants.” Ariel gives up her voice more broadly for the sake of her fellow sea people who she thinks are closed-minded about humans. According to Marshall, the remake’s takeaway isn’t intended to be about romance as much as it is to “not be afraid of the ‘other.”
The Importance Of Ariel’s Casting
With a fiery mane of red hair, fair skin, and blue eyes, the original Princess Ariel is regarded as the favorite and prettiest of King Triton’s daughters - and her appearance is said to have been inspired by the popular actress of the time, Alyssa Milano. Halle Bailey, who gained prominence as one half of the R&B duo Chloe x Halle, made a splash in 2019 when it was announced she would take on the iconic role of Ariel in this new “live-action” feat. This casting held an immense significance to many, representing a milestone for Hollywood, and Disney, embracing diversity and inclusivity on screen. While the casting wasn’t without racist backlash on the internet, ultimately it proved the importance of representation. After the first look at the film dropped in 2022, Tik Tok and Instagram were filled with videos of young Black girls excitedly reacting.
Jodi Benson, a Broadway actress and singer and the original voice of Ariel created a high standard for the role. The singing voice of Ariel is integral to the character, as she is repeatedly described as having the most beautiful voice so enchanting that even the sea witch Ursula desires to possess it. Therefore, the significance of Halle Bailey’s casting as Ariel is further amplified by her background in R&B, a musical genre developed by Black musicians. This specific vocal performance background brings a fresh perspective to the role and further highlights the beauty of Black art for audiences.
The Iconic Appearance Of Ursula
Melissa Mcarthy’s take on the fan-favorite sea witch Ursula also appears to draw inspiration from Pat Carol’s original Ursula, who is deep-voiced, conniving, sultry, and sarcastic. Since it’s well believed by Disney and pop culture fans alike that Ursula was originally designed based on the legendary drag queen Divine, Melissa Mcarthy seems to acknowledge her role’s iconization. She incorporates a lot of her original physical movements into her role, especially in “Poor Unfortunate Souls”, the villain’s show-stopping musical number. Overall, Melissa McCarthy’s version of Ursula plays up the fabulousness of a character who’s always had a passionate fan following.
Many of Ursula’s physicalities and much of her design feel very similar to the original, including her exaggerated arched brows, green eyeshadow, a black dress that turns into tentacles, and her red lips. But the look has some subtle differences. In the 2023 film, Ursula’s lair is much darker, lit mainly by the bioluminescence of her tentacles.
The Iconic Costuming
Halle Bailey’s costume and character design clearly builds on the original but with some noticeable updates. The character design incorporates Bailey’s own locs, which she’s had since she was 5, weaving in auburn curls to create a more realistic version of Ariel’s iconic red hair. Also differing from the animated Ariel’s bright green tail and purple shell bikini top is Halle Bailey’s iridescent tail made up of individual scales shimmering with green, blue, and purple, giving a life-like version of what a mermaid could be. The costumes and locations on land through the new film take direction from the drawings in the 1989 original but feel arguably more grounded in a historical time and place.
As Ariel goes for a carriage ride with Prince Eric, she is wearing a blue and black dress with a large blue bow when she takes the reins and rides off on a path surrounded by a lush forest. This same scene in the live-action remake shows Ariel in a corseted pale blue dress covered in ruffles and fills, with a wide pink headband to keep her locs out of her face. The scene also differs as the location appears to be in a Caribbean location, covered with palm trees and dusty dirt paths, as opposed to the animated version of this event, which appears to be surrounded by city walls, grapevines, and cobblestones resembling a European city.
More Of The Same
The echos are too many to name, but here are a few:
Ariel laying beside an unconscious Prince Eric in the sand feels like the same scene mirrored (though with different coloring), as well as when he looks up to see her face hazy above him,
In the original “Part of Your World (Reprise),” Ariel leans against a rock while she watches Prince Eric on the shore and sings, while the sea spray splashes her as she hits her final note. This moment is accomplished in the remake, ticking a box for fans. Another quintessential Ariel scene comes when she’s given legs by Ursula. Swimming upwards, she breaks the surface and the audience sees a silhouette of her dramatically flipping her hair back and she comes up for air. Halle Bailey remarked that the shot took a lot of effort to perfect:
Overall, some of the casting and content updates to Little Mermaid are welcome – if not necessary – in today’s age, and to be honest, many of them are fairly subtle. This is still a very faithful remake of the original romance down to countless details. But for that very reason, it faces the same hurdles as all of the Disney live-action remakes: despite all its attempts to copy, much of the color, humor, and magic is inevitably lost when broad cartoon characters get swapped for stiff, hyper-realistic CGI recreations. The life and originality of the first film are hard to muster when you’re stuck making what’s essentially, as Insider’s Kirsten Acuna put it “paint by numbers”. Still, the movie has its moments of creativity and is buoyed by the performances of its all-star cast. It attempts, where it can, to bring something new and contemporary to its mission of paying tribute to what so many have loved about The Little Mermaid for over three decades.
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Felt, Klein. “The Little Mermaid Remake’s Controversial Lyric Changes Explained by Director.” The Direct, 3 May 2023. https://thedirect.com/article/the-little-mermaid-remake-controversial-lyric-changes-explained. Accessed 19 May 2023.
Felt, Klein. “The Little Mermaid Remake Reviews: Critics Share Strong First Reactions.” The Direct, 9 May 2023. https://thedirect.com/article/the-little-mermaid-remake-reviews-critics-reactions-movie. Accessed 19 May 2023.
Felt, Klein. “The Little Mermaid Remake Will Fix 1 Romance Issue from the Original, Says Director.” The Direct, 17 May 2023. https://thedirect.com/article/the-little-mermaid-remake-romance-issue-fix. Accessed 19 May 2023.